'The Life of Jesus' by Ernest Renan (1863)

A selection from The Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan, 1863. 

From The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer (1905):
The history of the study of the life of Jesus has hitherto received surprisingly little attention. Hase, in his Life of Jesus of 1829, briefly records the previous attempts to deal with the subject. Friedrich von Ammon, himself one of the most distinguished students in this department, in his "Progress of Christianity," [1] gives some information regarding "the most notable biographies of Jesus of the last fifty years." In the year 1865 Uhlhorn treated together the Lives of Jesus of Renan, Schenkel, and Strauss; in 1876 Hase, in his "History of Jesus," gave the only complete literary history of the subject; [2] in 1892 Uhlhorn extended his former lecture to include the works of Keim, Deiff, Beyschlag, and Weiss; [3] in 1898 Frentzen described, in a short essay, the progress of the study since Strauss; [4] in 1899 and 1900 Baldensperger gave, in the Theologische Rundschau, a survey of the most recent publications; [5] Weinel's book, "Jesus in the Nineteenth Century," naturally only gives an analysis of a few classical works; Otto Schmiedel's lecture on the "Main Problems of the Critical Study of the Life of Jesus" (1902) merely sketches the history of the subject in broad outline.
Apart from scattered notices in histories of theology this is practically all the literature of the subject.

[1] Dr. Christoph Friedrich von Ammon, Fortbildung des Christentums , Leipzig, 1840, vol. iv. p. 156 ff.
[2] Hase, Geschichte Jesu , Leipzig, 1876, pp. 110—162. The second edition, published in 1891, carries the survey no further than the first.
[3] Das Leben Jesu in seinen neueren Darstellungen , 1892, five lectures.
[4] W. Frantzen, Die "Leben-Jesu" Bewegung seit Strauss, Dorpat, 1898.
[5] Theol. Rundschau. ii. 59-67 (1899) ; iii. 9-19 (1900).
Von Soden's study, Die wichtigsten Fragen im Leben Jesu, 1904, belongs here only in a very limited sense, since it does not seek to show how the problems have gradually emerged in the various Lives of Jesus.

Recently, Reza Aslan, an Iranian-America scholar, made a contribution to the 'The quest for the historical Jesus' genre with his Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, 2013.

[Work in Progress]


It is the Semitic race which has the glory of having made the religion of humanity. [...] A strong antipathy against the voluptuous worship of Syria, a grand simplicity of ritual, the complete absence of temples, and the idol reduced to insignificant teraphim [i.e., household gods], constituted his superiority.[...] Ancient relations with Egypt, whence perhaps resulted some purely material ingredients, did but augment their repulsion to idolatry. A "Law," or Torah,... had become the code of Monotheism, and contained... powerful germs of social equality and morality. A chest or portable ark, having staples on each side to admit of bearing poles, constituted all their religious material... . The family charged with bearing the ark and watching over the portable archives, being near the book and having the control of it, very soon became important. [...] Very early they announced unlimited hopes, and when the people... had been crushed by the Assyrian power, they proclaimed that a kingdom without bounds was reserved for them, that one day Jerusalem would be the capital of the whole world, and the human race become Jews. Jerusalem and its temple appeared to them as a city placed on the summit of a mountain, towards which all people should turn, as an oracle whence the universal law should proceed, as the centre of an ideal kingdom, in which the human race, set at rest by Israel, should find again the joys of Eden.

This great book [the Torah] once created, the history of the Jewish people unfolded itself with an irresistible force.

Israel placed the age of gold in the future. The perennial poesy of religious souls, the Psalms, blossomed from this exalted piety, with their divine and melancholic harmony. Israel bcame truly and specially the people of God, while around it the pagan religions were more and more reduced, in Persia and Babylonia, to an official charlatanism, in Egypt and Syria to a gross idolatry, and in the Greek and Roman world to mere parade. [...] They [the Jews] were a living protest against superstition and religious materialism.
[...] By a cycle of legends destined to furnish models of immovable firmness,... the guides of the people sought above all to inculcate the idea that virtue consists in a fanatical attachment to fixed religious institutions.
The persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes made this idea a passion, almost a frenzy. It was something very analogous to that which happened under Nero two hundred and thrity years later. Rage and despair threw the believers into the world of visions and dreams. The first apocalypse, "The Book of Daniel," appeared. [...] The Book of Daniel gave, in a manner, the last expression to the Messianic hopes. [...] The unknown author... supplied the mise-en-scene, and the technical terms of the new belief in the Messiah... .


It would... be a great error to imagine that Jesus was what we call ignorant. [...] The refinement of manners and the acuteness of the intellect have, in the East, nothing in common with what we call education. It is the men from the schools, on the contrary, who are considered badly trained and pedantic. In this social state ignorance, which, among us, condemns a man to an inferior rank, is the condition of great things and of great originality.
It is not probable that Jesus knew Greek.

Neither directly nor indirectly... did any element of Greek culture reach Jesus. He knew nothing beyond Judaism; his mind preserved that free innocence which an extended and varied culture always weakens. In the very bosom of Judaism, he remained a stranger to many efforts parallel to his own.
Happily for him, he was also ignorant of the strange scholasticism which was taught at Jerusalem, and which was soon to constitute the Talmud.

...the religious lyrics of the Psalms were in marvellous accordance with his poetic soul; they were, all his life, his food and sustenance. [...] One... book especially struck him-- namely, the book of Daniel. [...] Its author, a true creator of the philosophy of history, had for the first time dared to see in the march of the world and its succession of empires only a purpose subordinate to the destinies of the Jewish people. Jesus was early penetrated by these high hopes.

That he had no knowledge of the general state of the world is apparent from each feature of his most authentic discourses. ...he seemed to ignore the "Roman peace," and the new state of society which its age inaugurated. He had no precise idea of the Roman power; the name of "Caesar" alone reached him. [...] He... probably saw Sebaste, a work of Herod the Great, a showy city, whose ruins would lead to the belief that it had been carried there ready made, like a machine which had only to be put up in its place. ...these were what he called "the kingdom of the world and all their glory." But this luxury of power, this administrative and official art, displeased him. What he loved were his Galilean villages, confused mixtures of huts, of nests and holes cut in the rocks, of wells, of tombs, of fig-trees, and of olives. The charming impossibilities with which his parables abound, when he brings kings and the mighty ones on the stage, prove that he never conceived of aristocratic society but as a young villager who sees the world through the prism of his simplicity.

Although born at a time when the principle of positive science was already proclaimed ['Almost a century before him Lucretius had expressed... the unchangeableness of the general system of nature'], he lived entirely in the supernatural.

The notion of the supernatural, with its impossibilities, is coincident with the birth of experimental science.


As the earth in its cooled state no longer permits us to understand the phenomena of primitive creation, because the fire which transfused it is extinct, so there is always a certain insufficiency in historical explanations, when our timid methods of investigation are applied to the revolutions of the epochs of creation which have decided the fate of humanity. [...] Apart from the French Revolution, no historical environment was so suitable as that in which Jesus was formed, to develop those hidden forces held by mankind in reserve, and which are not visible except in days of fevered excitement and peril.
If the government of the world were a speculative problem, and the greatest philosopher were the man best fitted to tell his fellows what they ought to believe, it would be from quietude and reflection that those great moral and dogmatic truths called religions would proceed. But it is not so. [...] As to the Semitic religions, they are as little philosophical as possible. [...] To be a disciple of Jesus it was not necessary to... profess any confession of faith; one thing alone was needful-- to be attached to him, to love him.[...] The rock of metaphysical subtleties against which Christianity broke from the third century onwards, was in nowise created by the founder.
The Jewish people had the disadvantage, from the Babylonian captivity up to the Middle Ages, of being in a state of high tension. That is why the interpreters of the spirit of the nation, during that long period, seemed to write under the influence of a burning fever... . Never did man seize the problem of the future and of his destiny with a more desperate courage... . Implicating the fate of mankind with that of their own little race, Jewish thinkers were the first to seek for a general theory of the progress of our species. ...before the Roman epoch it would be vain to seek in classical literature for a general system of historical philosophy embracing all humanity. The Jew, on the other hand, thanks to a kind of prophetic sense which renders the Semite at times marvellously fitted to behold the great lines of the future, has made history enter into religion. Perhaps he owes a little of this spirit to Persia. Persia, from an ancient period, conceived the history of the world as a series of evolutions, over each of which a prophet presided. Each prophet had his hazar, or reign of a thousand years (chiliasm), and from these successive ages, analogous to the Avatar of India, is formed the course of events which prepare for the reign of Ormuzd. At the end of time, when the cycle of chiliasms shall be exhausted, the final paradise will come. Then men will live happy; the earth will be as one plain; there will be only one language, one law, and one government for all. But this advent will be preceded by terrible calamities. Dahak (the Persian Satan) will break his chains and fall upon the world. [...] These ideas ran through the world, and penetrated even to Rome... .

A mighty dream haunted the Jewish people for centuries, constantly renewing its youth in its decrepitude. ... Judea concentrated all it power of love and desire upon the national future. She thought she possessed divine promises of a boundless future... . Before the captivity... they dreamt of the restoration of the house of David, the reconciliation of the two divisions of the people, and the triumph of theocracy and the worship of Jehovah over idolatry. At the epoch of the captivity a poet, full of harmony, saw the splendour of a future Jerusalem, of which the peoples and the distant isles should bow down, in colours so charming that one might say a glimpse of the visions of Jesus had reached him at a distance of six centuries.

...the triumphant and often cruel entrance of Greek and Roman civilisation into Asia cast her back upon her dreams. More than ever she invoked the Messiah as judge and avenger of the peoples. A complete regeneration, a revolution which should shake the whole world to its very foundation, was necessary to satisfy the mighty thirst for vengeance excited in her by the sense of her superiority, and by the sight of her humiliation.

...Antigonus of Soco might well maintain that we must not practise virtue like slaves expecting a recompense, that we must be virtuous without hope. But the mass of the people could not be contented with this. [...] The righteous will live again to participate in the Messianic kingdom. They will live again in the flesh,... they will be kings and judges; they will behold the triumph of their ideas and the humiliation of their enemies.

...in combination with the belief in the Messiah, and the doctrine of an approaching renewal of all things, the dogma of the resurrection formed the basis of those apocalyptic theories which, without being articles of faith, pervaded all imaginations, and produced a great fermentation from one end of the Jewish world to the other.

Jesus, as soon as he had any thought of his own, entered into the burning atmosphere which was created in Palestine by the ideas we have just described. These ideas were taught in no school; but they were in the very air, and the soul of the young reformer was soon filled with them.

He never attached much importance to the political events of his time, and probably knew little about them. The court of the Herods was a world so different from his own that he doubtless knew it only by name. Herod the Great died about the year in which Jesus was born... . [...] [Herod the Great's] idea of a secular kingdom of Israel, even if it had not been an anachronism in the state of the world in which it was conceived, would inevitably have miscarried, like the similiar project which Solomon formed, owing to the difficulties proceeding from the character of the nation. [...] The last trace of self-government was lost to Jerusalem. [...] A series of Roman procurators... followed each other, and were constantly occupied in extinguishing the volcano which was seething beneath their feet.
Continual seditions, excited by the Zealots of Mosaism [i.e., of Mosaic law], did not cease, in fact, to agitate Jerusalem during all this time. [...] To overturn the Roman eagle, to destroy the works of art raised by the Herods, in which the Mosaic regulations were not always respected... were perpetual temptations to fanatics, who had reached that degree of exaltation which removes all care for life. [...] The Law had never counted a greater number of impassioned disciples than at this time... . The "Zelotes" (
"Ḳanna'im"), or "Sicarii," pious assassins, who imposed on themselves the task of killing whoever in their estimation broke the Law, began to appear.

Of all the exactions to which the country newly conquered by Rome was subjected, the census was the most unpopular. This measure, which always astonishes people unaccustomed to the requirements of great central administration, was particularly odious to the Jews. [...] The census, in fact, was the basis of taxation; now taxation, to a pure theocracy, was almost an impiety. God being the sole Master whom man ought to recognize, to pay tithe to a secular sovereign was, in a manner, to put him in the place of God. Completely ignorant of the idea of the State, the Jewish theocracy only acted up to its logical induction-- the negation of civil society and of all government. [...] The census order by Quirinus (in the year 6 of the Christian era) powerfully reawakened these ideas, and caused a great fermentation. An insurrection broke out in the northern provinces. One Judas, of the town of Gamala, upon the eastern shore of the Lake of Tiberias, and a Pharisee named Sadoc, by denying the lawfulness of the tax, created a numerous party, which soon broke out in open revolt. The fundamental maxims of this party were-- that they ought to call no man "master," this title belonging to God alone; and that liberty was better than life. [...] Judas was evidently the chief of a Galilean sect, deeply imbued with the Messianic idea, and which became a political movement. The procurator, Coponius, crushed the sedition of the Gaulonite... . [...] Perhaps Jesus saw this Judas, whose idea of the Jewish revolution was so different from his own; at all events, he knew his school, and it was probably to avoid his error that he pronounced the axiom upon the penny of Caesar ['render unto Caesar...']. Jesus, more wise, and far removed from all sedition, profited by the fault of his predecessor, and dreamed of another kingdom and another deliverance.
Galilee was thus an immense furnace wherein the most diverse elements were seething. [...] It is not recorded that Jesus was even once interfered with by the civil power in his wandering career. Such freedom, and, above all, the happiness which Galilee enjoyed in being much less confined in the bonds of Pharisaic pedantry, gave to this district a real superiority over Jerusalem.

Less brilliant in one sense than the development of Jerusalem, that of the North was on the whole much more fertile... .  [...] Jeruslaem has not conquered humanity. [...] The North alone has made Christianity; Jerusalem, on the contrary, is the true centre of that obstinate Judaism, which, founded by the Pharisees, and fixed by the Talmud, has traversed the Middle Ages, and come down to us.
A beautiful external nature tended to produce a much less austere spirit... which imprinted a charming and idyllic character on all the dreams of Galilee.  [...] The most important acts of Jesus divine career took place upon its mountains. It was there that he was the most inspired; it was there that he held secret communion with the ancient prophets; and it was there that his disciples witnessed his transfiguration.

Galilee had no large towns. The country was, nevertheless, well peopled, covered with small towns and large villages, and cultivated in all its parts... . [...] The country abounded in fresh streams and in fruits; the large farms were shaded with vines and figtrees; the gardens were filled with trees bearing apples, walnuts, and pomegranates. [...] This contented and easily satisfied life [...] spiritualized itself in ethereal dreams-- in a kind of poetic mysticism... . Leave the austere Baptist in his desert of Judea to preach penitence, to inveigh without ceasing, and to live on locusts in the company of jackals. 

The whole history of infant Christianity has become in this manner a delightful pastoral. [...] Greece has drawn pictures of human life by sculpture and by charming poetry, but always without backgrounds or distant receding perspectives. In Galilee were wanting the marble, the practiced workmen,  the exquisite and refined language. But Galilee has created the most sublime ideal for the popular imagination: for behind its idyl moves the fate of humanity, and the light which illumines its picture is the sun of the kingdom of God.
Jesus lived and grew amid these enchanting scenes. From his infancy he went almost annually to the feast at Jerusalem. The pilgrimage was a sweet solemnity for the provincial Jews.


About the year 28 of our era (the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius) there spread throughout Palestine the reputation of a certain... John, a young ascetic full of zeal and enthusiasm. John was of the priestly race, and born, it seems, at Juttah, near Hebron... . Hebron, the patriarchal city par excellence, situated at a short distance from the desert of Arabia, was at this period what it is today-- one of the bulwarks of Semitic ideas, in their most austere form.

It was generally believed that Elias would return and restore Israel.

The people took him for a prophet, and many imagined that it was Elias who had risen again. [...] Others held John to be the Messiah himself... . The priests and the scribes, opposed to this revival of prophetism, and the constant enemies of enthusiasts, despised him. But the popularity of the Baptist awed them, and they dared not speak against him. It was a victory which the ideas of the multitude gained over the priestly aristocracy.

No doubt he was possessed in the highest degree with the Messianic hope... . "Repent," said he, "for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." [...] The general tone of his sermons was stern and severe.

We imagine him an old man; he was, on the contrary, of the same age as Jesus. [...] ...Jesus, during the time that he passed with him, recognised him as his superior, and only developed his own genius with timidity. [...] His way was, as yet, not clear before him.


The Baptist once imprisoned, his school was soon diminished, and Jesus found himself left to his own impulses.

His watchword henceforth is the "good tidings," the announcement that the kingdom of God is at hand.

He declared that in the present world evil is the reigning power. [...] The day is at hand, for the abomination is at its height. The reign of goodness will have its turn.
The advent of this reign of goodness will be a great and sudden revolution. The world will seem to be turned upside down: the actual state being bad,... it suffices to conceive nearly the reverse of that which exists. The first shall be last. A new order shall govern humanity. [...] The germ of this great revolution will not be recognisable in its beginning. It will be like a grain of mustard-seed, which is the smallest of seeds, but which, thrown into the earth, becomes a tree under the foliage of which the birds repose; or it will be like the leaven which, deposited in the meal, makes the whole to ferment.

...the example of Judas, the Gaulonite [who led the armed resistance against the introduction of the Roman census in Judea around 6AD], had shown him the uselessness of popular seditions. He never thought of revolting against the Romans... . [...] In the desert of Judea Satan had offered him the kingdoms of the earth. Not knowing the power of the Roman empire, he might, with the enthusiasm there was in the heart of Judea,... hope to establish a kingdom... . [...] One day, it is said, the simple men of Galilee wished to carry him away and make him king, but Jesus fled into the mountain and remained there some time alone.

It was indeed the kingdom of God, or, in other words, the kingdom of the Spirit, which he founded... . That which Jesus founded, that which will remain eternally his,... is the doctrine of the liberty of the soul. Greece had already had beautiful ideas on this subject. Various Stoics had learnt how to be free even under a tyrant. But in general the ancient world had regarded liberty as attached to certain political forms... . [...] Jesus did not know history sufficiently to understand that such a doctrine came most opportunely at the moment when republican liberty ended, and when the small municipal constitutions of antiquity were absorbed in the unity of the Roman empire. But his admirable good sense, and the truly prophetic instinct which he had of his mission, guided him with marvellous certainty. By the sentence, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and to God the things which are God's," he created something apart from politics, a refuge for souls in the midst of the empire of brute force.

If Jesus, instead of founding hi heavenly kingdom, had gone to Rome,... what would have become of the world? As an austere republican, or zealous patriot, he would not have arrested the great current of the affairs of his age; but, in declaring that politics are insignificant, he has revealed to the world this truth,... that the man is before, and higher than, the citizen.

...in order to be just to great originators, they must not be judged by the prejudices in which they have shared. [...] Shall we place an ordinary man of our time above a Francis of Assis, a St. Bernard, a Joan of Arc, or a Luther, because he is free from errors whcih these last have professed? Should we measure men by the correctness of their ideas of physics, and by the more or less exact knowledge which they possess of the true system of the world? [...] The Deism of the eighteenth century, and a certain kind of Protestantism, have accustomed us to consider the founder of the Christian faith only as a great moralist, a benefactor of mankind. We see nothing more in the Gospel than good maxims; we throw a prudent veil over the strange intellectual state in which it was originated. [...] Let us not impose our petty and commonplace ideas on these extraordinary movements so far above our everyday life.

The ideal is ever a Utopia. When we wish nowadays to represent the Christ of the modern conscience, the consoler, and the judge of the new times, what course do we take? That which Jesus himself did eighteen hundred and thirty years ago. We suppose the conditions of the real world quite other than what they are; we represent a moral liberator breaking without weapons the chains of the negro, ameliorating the condition of the poor, and giving liberty to oppressed nations. We forget that this implies the subversion of the world, the climate of Virginia... modified, our social complications restored to a chimerical simplicity, and the political stratifications of Europe displaced from their natural order. The "restitution of all things" desired by Jesus was not more difficult. This new earth, this new heaven, this new Jerusalem which comes from above,... are the common characteristics of reformers. The contrast of the ideal with the sad reality always produces in mankind those revolts against sober reason which inferior minds regard as folly, till the day arrives in which they triumph, and in which those who have opposed them are the first to recognise their reasonableness.

That which in fact distinquishes Jesus from the agitators of his time, and from those of all ages, is his perfect idealism. Jesus, in some respects, was an anarchist, for he had no idea of civil government. [...] He spoke of it in vague terms, and as a man of the people who had no idea of politics. [...] ...he never shows any desire to put himself in the place of the rich and the powerful. [...] He predicts persecution and all kinds of punishment to his disciples; but never once does the thought of armed resistance appear. The idea of... triumphing over force by purity of heart, is indeed an idea peculiar to Jesus.

The founders of the kingdom of God are the simple. Not the rich, not the learned, not priests; but women, common people, the humble, and the young.


"Christianity" has... become almost a synonym of "religion." [...] Jesus gave religion to humanity, as Socrates gave it philosophy, and Aristotle science.

The faith, the enthusiasm, the constancy of the first Christian generation is not explicable, except by supposing, at the origin of the whole movement, a man of surpassing greatness.

Let us place, then, the person of Jesus at the highest summit of human greatness. [...] It is not rare to see arise..., in the midst of a general atmosphere of wickedness, characters whose greatness astonishes us.

I know that our modern ideas have been offended more than once in this legend, conceived by another race, under another sky, and in the midst of other social wants. [...] By our extreme delicacy in the use of means of conviction, by our absolute sincerity and our disinterested love of the pure idea, we have founded-- all we who have devoted our lives to science-- a new ideal of morality. [...] Jesus remains an inexhaustible principle of moral regeneration for humanity. Philosophy does not suffice for the multitude. They must have sanctity. 

Preserve us... from mutilating history in order to satisfy our petty susceptibilities! Which of us, pigmies as we are, could do what the extravagant Francis d'Assisi or the hysterical Saint Theresa has done? Let medicine have names to express these grand errors of human nature; let it maintain that genius is a disease of the brain; let it see, in a certain delicacy of morality, the commencement of consumption; let it class enthusiasm and love as nervous accidents-- it matters little. The terms "healthy" and "diseased" are entirely relative. Who would not prefer to be diseased like Pascal, rather than healthy like the common herd? The narrow ideas which are spread in our times respecting madness mislead our historical judgements in the most serious manner, in questions of this kind. A state in which a man says things of which he is not conscious, in which thought is produced without the summons and control of the will, exposes him to being confined as a lunatic. Formerly this was called prophecy and inspirations. The most beautiful things in the world are done in a state of fever; every great creation involves a breach of equilibrium, a violent state of the being which draws it forth. 

There is no one so shut in as not to receive some influence from without. The history of the human mind is full of strange coincidences, which cause very remote portions of the human species, without any communication with each other, to arrive at the same time at almost identical ideas and imaginations. [...] We should say there are great moral influences running through the world like epidemics, without distinction of frontier and of race. [...] All this [is] done through secret channels and by that kind of sympathy which exists among the various portions of humanity. 

Far from Jesus having continued Judaism, he represents the rupture with the Jewish spirit. [...] The general march of Christianity has been to remove itself more and more from Judaism. It will become perfect in returning to Jesus, but certainly not in returning to Judaism.

Each branch of the development of humanity has its privileged epoch, in which it attains perfection by a sort of spontaneous instinct, and without effort. No labour of reflection would succeed in producing afterwards the masterpieces which nature creates at those moments by inspired geniuses. That which the golden age of Greece was for arts and literature, the age of Jesus was for religion. Jewish society exhibited the most extraordinary moral and intellectual state which the human species has ever passed through. It was truly one of those divine hours in which the sublime is produced by combinations of a thousand hidden forces, in which great souls find a flood of admiration and sympathy to sustain them. [...] Everything favours those who have a special destiny; they become glorious by a sort of invincible impulse and command of fate.

Mankind in its totality offers an assemblage of low beings, selfish, and superior to the animal only in that its selfishness is more reflective. From the midst of this uniform mediocrity there are pillars that rise towards the sky, and bear witness to a nobler destiny. Jesus is the highest of these pillars which show to man whence he comes, and whither he ought to tend. In him was condensed all that is good and elevated in our nature.

Will great originality be born again, or will the world content itself henceforth by following the ways opened by the bold creators of the ancient ages? We know not. But whatever may be the unexpected phenomena of the future, Jesus will not be surpassed. His worship will constantly renew its youth, the tale of his life will cause ceaseless tears, his suffering will soften the best hearts... .